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'There was something in Nelson Mandela that is essential in good teachers'

Hugh McLean, a South African teacher who leads the Education Support Program at the Open Society Foundations, writes:

"Nelson Mandela was the kind of man you felt you knew and that you will miss now that he is gone.  You might not have known him personally, but you will miss what he stood for: those things that you would like to find in yourself and be remembered for.

What I knew of him, from the few same-room-same-time encounters I had in the 1990s, was that he had a way of making everyone feel important and included, always saying something apt or funny and somehow managing to wear our country’s history and its future at once in the shapes and colours on his bright shirts.

I recall he disappeared from the high table at a function once and was found in the kitchen chatting to the cooks and cleaning staff. There’s something of a biblical parable in that but let’s not take the analogy too far. 

Mandela recognised the power of education, both in its personal dimension — he says in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that “education is the great engine of personal development”. And on another occasion he described how it has the potential to hasten social transformation: “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

These quotes illustrate that there was no apartheid wall in his mind between thinking for yourself and thinking for others, or for simply doing and being what you believe. It is this linking of the personal and the political that defines him. There is too, in this, as there was in the man himself, something essential about good teachers and good teaching. These can be broken down into three elements: include everyone, make each pupil feel important and involved; know your subject, even if it is revolution, and believe that your students can learn to know it just as well as you do; be an example that inspires bigger ambition and better ideas by aspiring to these things yourself. You don’t have to be a great woman or man to achieve these things, all of us can.

Tata Madiba wouldn’t mind, then, if I use his tribute to talk about someone else, or something else, rather, that bears fitting tribute to what he lived for. Just a week before he died, the minister of basic education in South Africa, Angie Motshekga, adopted a set of legally binding norms and standards for South African schools. For the first time, almost twenty years after the ANC took power in the country’s first democratic government, almost forty years since the Soweto uprising, South African schools are finally required, by law, to have toilets, blackboards and teachers.

This has been a long walk to basic amenities, it will be a longer walk still to quality education. It took three years of active campaigning by black school students and their organisation Equal Education to achieve: marches, sit-ins, fasts, all-night vigils outside parliament, plenty of arguments and two court actions. There is a great wide donga indeed between the memory of this great man and the current leadership of the ANC, whose president clearly cares more about building his luxury home than the state of our country’s schools or whether or not anyone is learning anything.

Mandela would have been proud of the persistence and dedicated focus of the young students that won this victory for norms and standards. They represent everything he lived for: the continuing spirit of struggle, the determination to rally others to the cause, the stop at nothing. This is his legacy, his most fitting tribute and his best lesson learnt. It is young, on the march, and coming soon to a school near you."   

Hugh McLean is a South African who worked as a school teacher in a rural resettlement village and in non-formal education with trade unions, community organisations and NGOs in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s. When South Africa’s first democratic government was in place Hugh worked with donor organisations to strengthen early childhood development, business education, community development, youth skills training, HIV/AIDS prevention and care, and distance learning. He did an MBA and developed his interests in research and evaluation. Hugh first moved to Europe to work for George Soros’s Open Society Institute in 1999.



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